Encanto brought up a lot of old family trauma for me. At first I thought I was overreacting, but then my sibling’s response to the movie, said it all. “You’re the Bruno in our family.”
If you’re from a dysfunctional family too, there’s a good chance one of the characters in this movie struck a chord with you. So I’m writing this to tell you from where I sit now, decades removed from a traumatic upbringing— we were made for more than the labels our families gave us.
First, let me just say that this movie is great. My kids have it on repeat, and of course I can’t get the soundtrack out of my head. But— the words and imagery of this story struck really close to home because of the toxic family I grew up in.
I grew up with a narcissist father.
We all had roles to play in the family to keep him happy. The children served as his trophies. The better we made him look, the more “love” we got in return. When we messed up, we were shamed and verbally abused/yelled at for hours for making him look bad. (We’ll call this the ‘Maribel-experience’). There was no unconditional love. There was no forgiveness. There were just kids competing against one another to be the golden child (Isabela), yet always feeling like we fell short of earning that adoration.
I didn’t start out as Bruno. At first I was Luisa. Playing the role of the strong one who could carry endless burdens & expectations. I took on an increasing amount of responsibility to win my father’s love. On the outside, I appeared to handle it all well. But under the surface (musical pun intended), I was completely crumbling.
All of the pressure to perform everything perfectly was causing me to buckle emotionally under the weight of it all. But instead of dropping some responsibilities or showing my cracks and imperfections, I worked even harder to hide my struggle. I kept it a secret— the chronic physical pain it was causing me to suffer.
What I wanted was for someone to tell me, “I am proud of you and love you no matter what your accomplishments are.” Maybe it would have made me feel better about failing or letting things slip. Maybe I would have been able to relax and know I was loved, without having to be perfect. But no one ever said those words or treated me that way. I continued to work harder and carry more responsibilities, hoping that eventually I’d earn the approval and “unconditional” love I had only ever heard about.
I tried to find an escape by attending a youth group at a church. But unfortunately it only reinforced my performance mentality. Every year they awarded two students for having “the biggest hearts for Jesus” based not on character or the way we treated people, but on marks like adhering to church rules & highest attendance. It fueled my prior conditioning to keep striving to be the best at everything. Performing now, for God & his people.
I couldn’t find rest or ready-love anywhere. Love was always a dangling carrot.
Things changed when I moved out at 18.
I got involved in a new church where people loved and accepted one another in the middle of their mistakes and messes. I found friends who, over time, would prove to stick by me during difficult years, including a failed marriage and a cross-country move.
In contrast, over that same period of time, I saw my father disown my siblings and me one by one as we went through normal adult issues that shined a light on our imperfections. The love I received from my friends and church community gave me something to measure my dad’s counterfeit love against.
The next step on my road to recovery came from a Crossroads’ church journey’. It was a six-week focus on how our perception of God often is derived from our relationship with our earthly father. Throughout the series, I often felt triggered by the questions and prompts, and it became evident I had a lot to unpack.
During week two of the study, I got so frustrated that I actually threw the workbook across the room. It hit the wall and bounced into the trash can. I laughed because I agreed it belonged there. (And I laughed because my dad had always refused to shoot baskets with me as a kid because I was “too bad to waste time on” and “couldn’t be taught.”)
During that journey group, I kept unpacking my childhood experiences, & I learned that what I had been through was abuse. I had never put that label on it before, and it was a bit of a shock to realize I was part of this statistic.
I learned that my experience was not what God had envisioned for families. He had placed our fathers on earth to show us his unconditional love and to provide a safe space. Instead, I was emotionally and verbally abused at home. It made sense that I needed time to process and mourn the loss of what I had never gotten to experience. It made sense that I was struggling emotionally as an adult, as a result of the cruel experiences I’d had in my home. I had been deprived of the safe, secure, and loving childhood God intended for me, and without me realizing, it had negatively impacted how I had viewed God.
Slowly but surely, God was guiding me on a path to undo all of this damaging wiring.
On my next visit home, I looked at our family dynamics through a fresh set of eyes. With the new perspective & awareness I had, I noticed I wasn’t as gripped by the desire to win my dad’s love; I saw that he was a troubled person who was arguably incapable of being a loving father. Seeing him in this light took away the power that his opinions had over me. What he thought— ceased to matter as much. I also saw that all of my previous work to earn God’s love was unnecessary. He already loved me, right now, while I was doing nothing impressive, and while I had really hard things going on. I felt a new motivation to be an example of that kind of love for others who had never received it— like my siblings.
For the first time, I talked to my siblings about how our father treated us. We compared stories. I heard how they were suffering and discovered it was getting progressively worse for them. The emotional and verbal abuse had evolved into other abuses. My youngest sibling was still under 18 and severely suicidal. Our father had denied access to care because “depressed people are worthless and deserve to die.”
I confronted my father about it. I named what he was doing. It was child abuse. And I reported him to children’s services.
That’s when I became Bruno.
Bruno wasn’t an outcast because he made bad things happen. He was an outcast for naming the bad things which were already happening.
It was the same for me. I didn’t cause the abuse. I pointed it out. And just like Bruno, I had to remove myself. Because staying within those dysfunctional family dynamics was not the most loving thing I could do for myself. Severing the relationship was a huge step that I believe God led me through so that I could have enough space to finally experience unconditional love without severe ongoing wounding. When my dad was not in my life reminding me of my failures, I felt a new freedom. I had the freedom to try new things I wasn’t good at. I had the freedom to make mistakes. I had the freedom to stop pretending to be perfect and instead live as the authentic person God already thought was lovable.
I have no contact with my earthly father now. And it was a process figuring out, with God, what forgiveness looked like in my case. How God was calling me to honor my dad, and continue to heal all of the implications my childhood had on my heart.
God isn’t like my father or Bruno’s mother. God still loves the Brunos and Maribels of the family. God loves us when others don’t. God forgives us when others blame. God loves us when we don’t think we have anything to offer (Maribel). God listens to us when others won’t (Bruno). God loves us when we strip away the facade of fakery and show our imperfections (Isabela). God doesn’t expect us to carry all the burdens (Luisa). God loves who we are, not who we pretend to be (Camillo). God loves us when we can’t get our emotions under control (Pepa).
SPOILER ALERT. In the end, Abuela realizes her mistakes, welcomes her estranged family members back, and asks for forgiveness. I won’t say I’m holding my breath for this fairy-tale ending in my real-life family. Maybe if my dad went through some intensive therapy. However, I know that God demonstrates the unconditional love and forgiveness and healing that we saw in the end of Encanto. Even if I can’t find an example of unconditional love in my earthly father, God already provided me with many other opportunities on earth where I can give and receive that kind of love.
That would be my prayer for you- that for every toxic family storyline woven into your life, you’d have 5x as many examples and relationships brought into your life that mirror God’s kind of love. That you will see healing for family members you never imagined could be possible. That you will have every burden taken off of your back- to stop performing, pretending, masking, & self-loathing. And that the labels placed on you by those who hurt you - which don’t accurately represent who God made you to be - would be stripped away and replaced by the labels God has for you: beloved and whole. I pray that the cues you took from your upbringing for how to view & treat yourself will piece-by-piece be replaced with truly loving examples set by God & his people.
If you need to talk to someone about healing from your own family trauma, there are resources here:
Schedule a free Talk Appointment with a Volunteer Care Pastor, a trained listener.
Find A Healing Group that matches your areas of trauma.
Find a Counselor.